Stephen King: Why Quantity Matters for Creativity

 IMAGE: Getty Images

IMAGE: Getty Images

Who produces better work--slow creators or prolific ones? One of America's foremost novelists weighs in.

In both the business world and the arts, you can find schools of thought treating quality and quantity as two isolated, inversely related entities on a zero-sum sliding scale: The more you produce, the less time you'll have to obsess about the quality of each production. The less you produce, the more time you'll have for perfectionism.

Why is such black-and-white thinking so appealing? Partly because it's simple, and partly because it's often (but not always) true. In reality, the process of producing quality work varies from creator to creator and project to project. But what's clear in all cases is that quantity and quality don't have to be oppositional forces--though it's easy enough to reach that conclusion. 

Author Stephen King weighed in on this subject not long ago in a New York Timesessay called, "Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?" King lists a few authors with more than 500 books to their name (or their pen name) who have produced mostly forgettable work.

Yet he's quick to cite some prolific exceptions to the rule: Alexandre Dumas (teasingly ridiculed as Alexander "Dumb-Ass" in King's The Shawshank Redemption) is best known for "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." But those are just two of the 250 novels he penned. Isaac Asimov, a legend in the science fiction genre, authored more than 500 books. 

"No one in his or her right mind would argue that quantity guarantees quality," King writes, "but to suggest that quantity never produces quality strikes me as snobbish, inane and demonstrably untrue."

In the arts (as King points out), quality is highly subjective. In business, there's a comparable subjectivity in the early phases of innovation projects. When you're throwing ideas against the wall, wondering how the world will change in the next five years, you're not yet hemming yourself in with the measurables (customers, sales, profitability) by which the your ideas will ultimately be judged. 

So, the question is worth exploring: In your innovation pipeline, is there a relationship between quality and quantity? The answer should be yes. In their Harvard Business Review article, "The 5 Requirements of a Truly Innovative Company," Gary Hamel and Nancy Tennant argue that any comprehensive innovation dashboard should track both "inputs" and "throughputs," both of which are measures of quantity. 

"Inputs" are the monthly dollars and employee hours dedicated to innovation, along with the total quantity of raw ideas generated. "Throughputs" are both the quantity and quality of ideas entering the pipeline after an initial screening. For throughputs, you're also tracking how long it takes for ideas to evolve from concept to prototype.

King himself practices his own version of quality control. The feedback of reader-customers is a large part of it. In a follow-up interview with the New York Times appearing earlier this week, he said: "In writing, the only way to deal with weaknesses is to isolate them. One can do this by reading critical reviews that all focus on the same negatives; if most critics are saying something is wrong, it probably is."By tracking all this, you're hoping to gauge efficiency: How many inputs become throughputs, and how many throughputs become prototypes and products? The goal is to identify patterns--and tweak your methods accordingly. For example, your pipeline might be great for some types of innovations (products, services) but lousy for others (pricing, distribution). The root of an innovation imbalance like this might begin with the sheer quantities of your inputs, sorted by category. 

Here's the key takeaway: For every creator, and for every company full of creators, there's a relationship between quantity and quality. But you won't know what that relationship is until you measure it over a period of time, heeding feedback and actively revamping your creative process in response to it. Perhaps, like Dumas, you'll have two home run ideas for every 250 you produce. But you won't know for sure until you produce all 250 of them--and see how they stand the test of time.

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